Features and Occasionals

Sustaining a Sweet Village Industry

By Katherine Pioli

Beehive state native Anthony Baron Kirk has become chief honey-bearer for Ghana’s wild bees.

Anthony Baron Kirk paused to look up at the full harvest moon. Dressed from mesh-covered head to booted toe in a beekeeper’s suit, he wondered if this was a good night to approach the hives. The darkness wasn’t as deep as he had hoped. The bees would still be active, kept awake by the glow of the false nocturnal sunlight.

But Kirk took a breath and stepped forward through the Ghanaian forest towards the rectangular white boxes. Around him, the villagers watched. Opening the first hive, Kirk heard a hum that quickly surrounded him. His white suit turned black. Kirk lifted an arm laden with yellow speckled insects, the indigenous Ghanaian honeybee. Overcoming a wave of fear as the hive surrounded him, Kirk stood still and greeted his new business partners, the worker bees behind his raw honey company, Aseda.

Far from Africa, Aseda wild honey is quickly finding space on the shelves of coffee shops around Salt Lake, not to mention many of the valley’s health food stores, yoga studios, raw restaurants and even a doctor’s office. Foodies snatch up this rich earth-colored honey, won over by its complex palate of natural flavors—sweet like dried bananas, but with a slightly acidic scent, like aged balsamic vinegar. Some health practitioners embrace it as an antioxidant-rich supplement that also aids in digestion and allergy immunity.

The story of Aseda wild honey stretches across an ocean and two continents. And while the Ghana connection situates the honey in Salt Lake’s global fair trade niche, it is also a local business. Founder and Salt Lake native Kirk, after all, bottles and distributes his product right here in Salt Lake Valley.

For Kirk, the relationship between the two places, Ghana and Salt Lake, is what really matters. Aseda is still evolving. Kirk assures that as it matures the founding values of the company will remain the same: maintaining a business cooperative built on mutual good intentions, transpar­ency and respect.

Building a brotherhood

It was just a spoonful of pure raw honey that Kirk tasted at a friend’s house in the spring of 2009. But it was a taste that proved an inspiration. Kirk finds the moment difficult to put into words. “That food struck a chord in me,” he says simply. “I left that day with a mission.”

In northern Ghana, far from the country’s populous and often-visited coast, lies Ghana’s largest protected reserve, Mole National Park (pronounced mo-lay). The Ashanti-Twii and Dagombas people, known for their extraordinary honey, live in communities dotted around its border. With help from his friends in Salt Lake, Kirk contacted the Ashanti-Twii spokesman, Nana, and offered to help the villagers market their honey in the United States. It was an offer that Nana had been waiting for.

Armed with some business savvy and a bachelor’s degree in public relations and marketing, Kirk sat down with a jar of the honey and in a few months wrote up his business proposal. Then he boarded a plane.

Kirk arrived on Ghana’s modernized, city-lined coast with little understanding of what was ahead of him in the following months and coming years.   Almost immediately, Kirk left the cities, traveling with his hosts to meet the beekeepers. Of the 400-mile trip north to the villages, Kirk recalls, “we drove for miles and miles and miles into remote territory. More than moving through distance, the journey into the forest felt like stepping back in time.” He traveled by jeep over rough dirt roads, potholed and crisscrossed by rivers without bridges. The further he traveled, the more unimaginable the idea of modern industry became.

The morning after his arrival, Kirk wandered to the center of the village for his first meeting with the chief. Under the shade of an enormous shea tree, the villagers gathered around him. When the chief appeared, he was decorated in full ceremonial dress. Kirk bowed his head, aware of the power of the moment. The two sat down, and Kirk began his proposal.

Created over months of dedicated work, written down in various coffee shops around Salt Lake, Kirk took his seat confident that he had come with a fail-proof business proposal. Dutifully following his training, he had researched demand for superfoods in the local market, studied other honey suppliers and forecasted potential growth and development. In three months, Kirk had perfected a 10-minute pitch he was sure would lure investors and assure Nana and the village chiefs of the business’s success.

“Hello. I am Anthony and I am here to create a cultural exchange,” Kirk recited his first line from the shade of the shea tree. The chief and the villagers listened intently. After each sentence, a long delay followed with two translations, one into Twii and then into the local dialect. Upon translation, the gathered villagers applauded. Kirk preceded stiffly, ignoring a growing feeling that the speech was not working. Each scripted sentence felt wrong, better designed for Ameri­can boardrooms and wealthy investors than this tribal meeting. Finally, Kirk abandoned the script.

“It was so interesting as an American to feel the energy of these people. They possessed such openness,” says Kirk, reflecting on the meeting. “I realized that the Ashanti-Twii are relationship people, and it is through creating a brotherhood that contracts are formed. This relationship is more integral than any written contract.”

That day, Kirk hid his legal contracts and business models under his hotel bed.

At the end of his third meeting, he asked to see the bees. It was without a doubt an unexpected gesture from an American businessman. The villagers, he says, thought he was crazy. Among the Ashanti-Twii and Dagombas, only the trained keepers work with the bees. Kirk had never opened a hive before, yet it proved to be a winning gesture. For Kirk, stepping into the bee suit sealed the contract. It felt like the final proof that Aseda was about more than profit, Aseda was dedicated to the community and the honey-makers.

Later, with the help of the village liaison, Nana, Kirk settled the details of the co-op. Together, they negotiated a fair price for the beekeepers. They structured the cooperative and laid down expectations for keeping the honey USDA sustainably and organically certified. When Kirk flew home from his first visit, he took with him 100 gallons of wild honey.

Challenges and joys

Kirk calls Aseda many things: a family, an exchange, social entrepreneurialism. “There is exploitation and the corporate model of us versus them,” says Kirk. “Then there is the socially, environmentally conscious business. That is what I am working to create.”

The logistics of such a business is at once Kirk’s greatest challenge and his greatest joy. In Ghana, such a model means supporting the beekeepers while promoting sustainable harvest practices.

The Ashanti-Twii and Dagombas villagers have a long history of beekeeping. Tradi­tion­al harvesting practices meant literally burning hives to extract honey. Well before Kirk’s dream of Aseda began, another NGO showed the villagers gentler harvesting techniques that did not threaten the hive. Aseda continues to promote modern beekeeping and harvesting practices while investing in the business infrastructure. Just two years after Kirk’s first visit, the number of farmed hives has grown from a couple hundred to 688 with more than 15 villages involved in the Aseda co-op.

In the United States, Kirk’s challenge is in providing a sustainable and quality product to his buyers. From the hive and into 680-pound drums, to a Ghanaian port city and onto Salt Lake store shelves, Kirk aims for sustainable handling all along the way, including transporting by ship to lower the carbon footprint.

Solving puzzles such as this is never a burden for Kirk. They are wonderful challenges. Through both the good and the bad, Kirk remains grateful for Aseda. It’s no surprise that, in the Ashanti-Twii language, aseda means gratitude. 

For more info on aseda visit http://www.asedarawhoney.com

Katherine Pioli fights fires in the summer, and travels the world and writes for CATALYST the rest of the year.

This article was originally published on December 28, 2011.